Seattle Mariners

Straw that stirs Mariners is looking like Martin


As the Mariners were putting a full house to sleep Friday night, in a game they had no business losing, a question occurred to me:

Might Leonys Martin be their most valuable player?

The knee-jerk answer is no, of course not. That distinction belongs to second baseman Robinson Cano, whose offensive production after 46 games — 14 homers, 13 doubles, 43 RBIs — makes him a front-runner for the American League MVP trophy he has never won. Cano, a force both on the field and off it, is the kind of total pro who galvanizes contenders.

Still, I wonder where the Mariners would be without Martin, and I didn’t have to do much wondering Friday night. Absent his speed at the top of the lineup and his glove in center field, the Mariners were reduced to plodders, beaten by a Twins’ club so bad it needed cue cards on how to perform the victory-handshake ritual.

Martin is sidelined with a strained left hamstring, initially called a “tweak” — a casual synonym of “uh-oh.” If I were appointed the czar of sports, my first mandate would be prohibiting using the word “tweak” to describe hamstring injuries. (My second mandate would be shutting down the auxiliary scoreboard’s velocity reading on those occasions when Felix Hernandez takes the mound at Safeco Field, but that’s another discussion, for another day.)

In any case, the tweak that turned out to be a strain — and heaven only knows what else — has put Martin on the 15-day disabled list, and given the rest of us a chance to consider how one player can electrify a team.

Full disclosure: Before the November trade with the Rangers that brought Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass to Seattle in exchange for Tom Wilhelmsen, James Jones and Patrick Kivlehan, all I knew about Martin was that he was good defensive outfielder with one of those names that challenges anybody not versed in the Spanish language.

Leonys is pronounced “Lee-Own-Us,” and Martin is pronounced “Mar-Teen.” Were he born 40 years sooner, consistent with the culture of the not-so-good old days, Leonys Martin’s baseball card would identify him as “Leo Martin.” That was how it worked for the Latin American players who advanced to the bigs. Pirates Hall-of-Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente, as an example, was “Bob Clemente” on his Topps cards for several years.

Bob Clemente. Seriously.

Converting the first name of a proud man into that of an Anglo alias was among many prejudices that Latino players such as Clemente faced. They were depicted as moody to the point of sullen. Despite the advances in this world we regard as progress, stereotypes endure.

Take Martin. Upon learning that general manager Jerry Dipoto had decided Martin would be the Mariners’ full-time center fielder, I searched for any info I could find. The typical scouting report went something like this: “Chases down line drives in the gaps that most can’t get to, cannon arm, but not much of a hitter and a bit of head case.”

Martin was heading to Seattle, in other words, with some baggage. Mariners cleanup slugger Nelson Cruz, a former Rangers teammate who considers himself a big brother of the “head-case” that frustrated the front office in Texas, talked of Martin’s difference-making talent during spring training.

“Maybe this year, we can get the best of his potential,” Cruz said in March. “He can hit homers and he can rob homers. He can throw you out. He can steal bases. It’s always exciting when he’s on base. He can do whatever he wants on the field.”

Cruz’s evaluation was as spot-on as his swing on a 3-0 fastball. Through 44 games, Martin hit nine homers, stole eight bases, and threw five runners out — the most assists by an AL center fielder.

When manager Scott Servais changed the lineup and put Martin in the leadoff spot, the consequences proved downright magical for the 28-year-old from Cuba. His batting average, virtually overnight, climbed from a Mendoza Line buck-something to .262.

The batting-average spike is merely a hint of what’s next for somebody who gives the Mariners the promise of a classic center fielder: A talent capable of hitting a homer, and robbing homer, in the same game.

The moment Martin’s left hamstring “tweaked,” the energy level of his team went from all-systems-go to let’s-just-try-to-get-by.

A precise definition of an MVP, isn’t it?